I am not the biggest fan of The Beatles in the world. Sure, I have every album from Rubber Soul on, but if push came to shove and was forced to save my favorite albums from a fire or something I doubt they’d make the cut. Still, when it was announced that Peter Jackson had cobbled together a multi-part documentary from the infamous Let It Be sessions, I was excited. With a long Thanksgiving weekend, it only made sense to dive in whole hog (or turkey, as it were). I’m glad I did, but I can see where other folks might not be able to push through it all.
It’s a Lot
“Multi-part” doesn’t quite do justice to just how much there is to digest in TB:GB. Each of the three parts is feature-length in its own right and they clock in at almost eight hours altogether. There are reasons for that – there was nearly 50 hours of footage to work with (and three times the amount of audio). In addition, I’ve read that Jackson added some footage once Disney decided the Blu-Ray release wouldn’t have any bonus features and he didn’t want the footage to disappear back into a vault for another few decades. All fine and good, but is it worth it?
It depends on whether you one of two kinds of people – or a third kind with a foot in both camps. The first is diehard fans of The Beatles who will absolutely want to spend all the time picking up on the minutiae of proceedings. The second are people who are interested in the creative process and seeing how the musical sausage gets made. I’m in the third group – I’m most interested in the sausage making and like The Beatles enough to wade through all the music they make in the process (I’d watch a similar, but much more brief, doc on, say Taylor Swift, even though I don’t really like her stuff).
If you’re not in one of those groups, you’ve probably got a better way to spend eight hours. That’s partly because given the fly-on-the-wall approach of this you really have to pay attention to what’s going on. Occasionally there’s text on screen to transition between scenes, but there’s no narration, no talking heads to guide you through what’s going on. You either jump in with both feet or don’t, in other words.
George On an Island
The dynamics of the band as they work are the most fascinating part of TB:GB. For all their troubles at this point, Paul and John and still a unit and tend to drive things (Paul, in particular). They’re not really the songwriting team they once were, but they help shape each other’s material in any case. The other two, well, they’re kind of odd men out. Ringo copes with all this by being Ringo, the most laid back man on the planet. It’s not for nothing that initially at the movie studio in Twickenham he’s on a riser, up and apart from the other three, and then at Apple studios he’s behind a sound barrier with his drums. His ability to let the bullshit pass him by while doing his job really well definitely says something.
George, sadly, doesn’t have the same personality make up, or whatever, that allows Ringo to go along and get along. He seems to be having a serious crisis of confidence through most of the sessions. Early on he brings up Eric Clapton and admiringly talks of his work with Cream, clearly feeling insufficient as a player by comparison (almost anybody would, right?). Later on he has trouble generating enthusiasm from the others for some of his songs, including “All Things Must Pass,” which would wind up as the title track on his first solo album.
It may have ever been thus, but by the time these sessions start the various stresses of the band clearly leave George out on his own most of the time. Which leads to . . .
As I said, I’m not the biggest fan, but I did know that Ringo quit for a bit during the making of The White Album. I had no idea George did the same during these sessions. I can’t say I blame him, but two things really stood out about that.
First, it happened without any of the kind of drama or hysterics you might expect. He did not fling his guitar down. He didn’t kick over an amp. He didn’t curse anybody out, yell, scream, or otherwise make an ass of himself. George simply announced that he was leaving and then did. If you were writing drama I don’t know that you’d have a character do it that way, but it almost hits harder for being so low key.
Second, what happens next is, dare I say it, very Spinal Tappish? In that classic mockumentary, lead guitarist and founding member Nigel Tufnel storms off stage and quits the band. Asked the next day about his leaving, co-founder David St. Hubbins downplays it, noting just how many people have been in the band over the years (all those hapless drummers!). When confronted that surely Nigel leaving is different, David eventually admits that he might feel different if he wasn’t sedated.
Part two of TB:GB begins with the band dealing with George’s absence and, at least initially, it’s no big deal. There’s no talk of the band being over. There’s no real talk, even, of stopping the sessions. Things are paused, somewhat, while George is talked back into the fold, but that’s about it. There’s talk of potential replacements, even! No wonder George walked out.
Sparks of Genius
One thing that really comes out of TB:GB is that, even for some of the most lauded songwriters of their generation, writing songs is hard work. There’s slog, there’s false starts, there’s struggle (as a recently departed genius wrote, “art isn’t easy”). As a creative person who often struggles with writing (and music making) it’s encouraging to see that even these guys have a hard time with it.
That said, there are some amazing moments where sparks of genius emerge from almost nothing. Most notably is the genesis of “Get Back” itself. A recurring theme of the Twickenham sessions is that John (with Yoko in tow) is almost always late, leaving the others to fart around waiting. On one of those mornings Paul is absent-mindedly strumming his bass when all of a sudden the opening riff of “Get Back” emerges. It takes hours of work (in documentary time) to actually get the final song out (at one point it takes a diversion into being a protest song about racism and xenophobia in the UK), but the nugget of it comes out of nowhere. It’s very cool to see those things happen.
The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Live Show
The original plan for what became Let It Be was for the band to get together to write and rehearse new material (while being filmed for a documentary) which would be the basis for a new album and a live concert. The band hadn’t played live in a few years, so anticipation was high for that, at least outside the band. The band never seemed on board and one of the more amusing themes of TB:GB is how the live concert element continues to morph until it winds up with the famous concert on top of the Apple Corps building.
The plan that made the most sense was to build a set at the film studio and bring a live audience in, but nobody is really that interested in that (they’d done it before). One of the band’s handlers suggests doing the concert in an ancient amphitheater in Libya, but it would take a few more years for Pink Floyd to get there (basically). A sub idea of that was to bring the audience with them on cruise ships to that venue, which nobody in the band is up for. Apparently the only thing worse than being cooped up with their fellow Beatles would be being stuck on a boat with loads of fans. Given that various music cruises are a thing these days (or were, before COVID) I wonder what the artists involve really think of those.
What a Live Show!
Of course they did wind up putting on a show, on the roof of the Apple Corps building in downtown London. If I remember correctly, Paul actual floats this idea early on, but it’s waved away while they consider more traditional alternatives (Paul, in general, is the driving force to have all this wind up being something other than just an another album). We get all of it, which is both great and a little bit of a grind – they only do a few tracks and take multiple takes of most. That said, several of those takes are what make it onto Let It Be in the end, so it’s cool to get them in all their glory.
The dynamic of the band through the sessions really comes into sharp relief up on the roof. John and Paul come alive on stage and are having a blast. George is more subdued, like rocking out on a cold, windy rooftop isn’t the best idea. Ringo just does what he does, unflappable behind the drums.
A word here about the fifth Beatle for this show, keyboardist Billy Preston. He’d met the band way back in their Hamburg days and dropped in the sessions in London just to say “hi.” He wound up drafted in to playing electric piano and organ (and goofing around with a Stylophone!), fleshing out the band’s sound, dedicated as they were to doing it all live. It’s after he arrives that things really get more focused and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that he’s the real hero here.
Another word about the baddies of the piece – the cops who come to shut everything down. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered if Monty Python sketches were too hard on British cops and authority figures, exaggerating for comedic effect, this footage convinced me they weren’t. The cops couldn’t have been more wet blankets if they had been played by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. There’s even a pepper pot who complains on the street! Life imitating art (or vice versa) and all that.
It Just Ends
This is an odd thing to say about an eight-hour long documentary, but it really just ends, without wrapping up stuff very well. After the concert on the roof there’s some brief footage of folks listening back to the recordings the film rolls credits, over which some more footage of the last of the studio recording takes place. It’s an odd choice that, among other things, leaves us without a full take of “Let It Be.”
Beyond that, given that the film is about the creation of these songs, it’s odd not to have a post-script about the actual release of the album. Or about how they went back into the studio almost immediately to work on what became Abbey Road (several songs from that album pop up during these sessions). Or about how Phil Spector got a hold of Let It Be and glooped his production onto it. Or . . ..
I get it – you got to stop sometime and that’s when the footage ran out. Still, given that there’s a little “how we got here” prologue for the band’s history a similar epilogue would have made sense.
Get Back, Jo
As I said, if you’re a Beatles fan or interested in seeing music get made, from the ground up, this is well worth your time. Otherwise, probably not. I’m glad it’s here and I’m glad I had the time to work through it. I don’t think I’ll add the Blu-Ray to my collection, though.